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  • Thomas Thurston

Start the year. Stop hero worship

Updated: Apr 3

To be better businesspeople, most of us analyze successful companies. We see what winners are doing and try to emulate those traits in our own jobs and decisions. I call this process “see winner, copy winner, expect to win too.” It makes intuitive sense, like watching Tiger Woods and trying to mimic his swing. Problem is, if you stop and think about business as a science (instead of as a philosophy), it’s painfully obvious how hero worship is a sloppy way to learn.

Hero Worship

By analogy, is copying Tiger Wood’s swing actually a good way to improve your game?  While Tiger has certainly been successful, is he a good model for you?  According to Tiger’s website, here’s his typical day:

  1. 6:30 a.m. – One hour of cardio. Choice between endurance runs, sprints or biking.

  2. 7:30 a.m. – One hour of lower weight training. 60-70 percent of normal lifting weight, high reps and multiple sets.

  3. 8:30 a.m. – High protein/low-fat breakfast. Typically includes egg-white omelet with vegetables.

  4. 9:00 a.m. – Two hours on the golf course. Hit on the range and work on swing.

  5. 11:00 a.m. – Practice putting for 30 minutes to an hour.

  6. Noon – Play nine holes.

  7. 1:30 p.m. – High protein/low-fat lunch. Typically includes grilled chicken or fish, salad and vegetables.

  8. 2:00 p.m. – Three-to-four hours on the golf course. Work on swing, short game and occasionally play another nine holes.

  9. 6:30 p.m. – 30 minutes of upper weight training. High reps.

Try to imagine Tiger’s body and brain.  A prodigy since he was two years old, top rankings in his sport, over a billion dollars in career earnings.  On a typical day he looks forward to over two hours of cardio and weight training, seven-to-eight hours of golf and a carefully balanced diet of egg-whites, vegetables, lean meats and salad.  Consider how finely tuned his muscles, reflexes and instincts are.  In a whole week most of us are lucky to get as much exercise as he gets by lunchtime.

Does this look anything like your average day? If you… say… have a job, the answer is probably “no.”  In that case, what makes you think the things that work for Tiger’s body and brain will work for you?  Is it possible the tips designed for one person don’t translate well to others with different levels of fitness and experience?  Michael Jordan could spend all day coaching me how to glide between seven-foot-tall guards and dunk behind my head, but it won’t be very helpful if I can’t jump high enough to touch the rim.  No matter how much I mimic him, it’s all misguided under the circumstances.  In the meantime my game would probably benefit most by spending time on the treadmill and eating fewer tacos.

Put on the goggles of a scientist for a moment.  Before copying Tiger’s moves, wouldn’t it be nice to know how people like you tend to perform when emulating his swing?  What if Tiger spent a month teaching 100 people with your level of fitness and experience how to swing like him, and compared the results to 100 others who learned a different technique? In this experiment you could compare both groups and see whose performance improved most.  You could also use statistics to see if any differences between the groups were significant, or if there wasn’t a meaningful impact.

Imagine how much this analysis might change the way you practice.  Instead of blindly imitating Tiger you could better know, in advance, if copying him was a good or bad idea.  Think of how revealing it would be if the group coached by Tiger actually performed worse.  It wouldn’t mean Tiger was incompetent (he’s definitely competent), it could just show how the swing of an elite professional may differ from the needs of a recreational hobbyist.

Similarly in business, emulating what you like about Apple, Google, Proctor & Gamble or Wal-Mart may not be a good idea for your business.  Don’t be a sucker for “see winner, copy winner, expect to win too.”  If I had a dollar for every time someone espoused the virtues of “elegant user-centric design” citing Apple as case-in-point, I’d probably have enough money to buy a controlling interest.  The same goes for bloviating over supply chain management with Wal-Mart as the mascot or “innovation” with absolutely any successful company on Earth cited as the poster-child.

Ever noticed how nobody talks about how innovative a company was, once it’s failed? There have been companies with stellar innovation capabilities that failed for other reasons, but nobody cares.  They aren’t heroes, at least not anymore, so knowledge gets lost.  Meanwhile today’s successful companies are held up as pillars of innovation even if their innovation practices are, in truth, flaccid.  There’s a subconscious assumption that successful companies are good at anything you say they’re good at (or that you hear from a TED talk, author or consultant).  It’s like assuming Tiger will be a good husband based on his golf skills.  We tend to think and act like heroes do everything right.

If business is to rise above the 70% – 80% failure rate of most companies, we need to move beyond hero worship.  Blindly imitating successful companies and imputing anecdotal lessons from their success is a sloppy, dangerous habit.  We need to do better because real people suffer when businesses fail.  Business needs more empirical, robust, predictive research if we’re to move beyond the intellectual equivalent of stone-age knowledge and practices.  There are a number of scholars and practitioners who are the exception to this rule and who have made significant contributions over the decades.  Yet I’m afraid, to date, leaders like these have been a noble minority and there’s often an inverse correlation between the quality of a thinker and his/her fame.  It’s 2014, not 1814.

Help businesspeople everywhere to escape the clutches of “see winner, copy winner, expect to win too” and, for what it’s worth, at the very least you’ll be a hero to me.


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